Festivity is an important aspect of the cultures and traditions of the Igbo people inhabiting the eastern and southeastern regions of Nigeria. At the end of the rainy season in August, the Igbo people harvest new yams and come together to celebrate the success in the name of a festival known as Iwa Iji which literally means new yam eating. The new yam festival is also know as Onwa Aasa, Orurueshi and so on in the different dialects found across the Igbo settlement.
The new yam festival stands as one of the most celebrated and recognized festivals in Ndi Igbo (Igbo land) as Igbo sons and daughters both at home and in the diaspora come together to share the festive spirit. Yams are the first crop to be harvested as it is regarded by Igbo people as the chief and queen of all crops, hence it is a taboo to sit or place heavy objects on it. After harvesting the yams, preparations are made for the festival which include spiritual and physical cleansing of the community, decorations and intense rehearsals of traditional dances. Also, in the evening before the new yam festival, old yams are sold or thrown away because the festival is strictly celebrated only with newly harvested yams.
The new yam festival portrayed the Igbo society as predominantly agrarian with more than half of its population engaged in farming and has brought a lot of development to Igbo land as it encourages agriculture which has in turn boosted the economy of many Igbo communities. The festival has also been a tool for uniting the Igbo ethnic group as they come together for the celebration, including their sons and daughters overseas.
However, in many Igbo communities, Iwa Iji or new yam festival lasts for few days while in some communities, it may last for a week or more. On the first day of the new yam festival, the yams are publicly roasted and first offered to ‘Ohajoku’, the Igbo god of yam/earth before the villagers commence eating. The offering rite is performed by the king or an elderly person in the community. This is followed by eating of the yam, different cultural dances and glamorous masquerade displays. Throughout the festival, only yams are served to the people and guests, and are eaten with mmanu nri (palm oil) or oil bean salad called Ugba.
Little is known about the origin of the new yam festival of the Igbo people, however, a popular myth wrapped around the festival has it that there was a time when the whole of Igbo land was plunged into famine. After a short while, the village priest proposed to the king that he should sacrificed his son to put an end to the famine. After some days of hesitation, the king finally sacrificed his son, Ohajoku, and buried him near the palace. Few days later, the king discovered yam tendrils sprouting from Ohajoku’s grave and dug it up six months later only to discover that his son’s body had turned to yams. The yams were then shared among the villagers and the famine gradually vanished. Since then, Ohajoku has been regarded as the Igbo god of yam, and the new yam festival is held in his honour.
It is no doubt that the new yam festival will forever remain one of the most prominent and colourful festivals celebrated in Igbo land.
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The Easterner, Horn News Nigeria